Oyster shucker to knish bakery doesn’t sound like a logical path, but that’s exactly what Graeme Miller did. He and his wife Caitlin are both Boston area natives who met in the hospitality industry and spent time in California before moving to Maine in 2012 to be closer to home.
Graeme shucked oysters at Big Tree Hospitality’s Eventide Oyster Bar in Portland and eventually became the chef de cuisine there and later the purchasing and distribution manager. Caitlin worked in the front of house and became the company’s HR director in 2016. Though they were surrounded by shellfish, the couple always dreamed of opening a Jewish deli.
They had a pre-pandemic business plan, but didn’t hold on to the space they wanted to open in through 2020. When the landlord reached back out to say it was available again, they jumped at the opportunity. BenReuben’s Knishery opened in South Portland in May 2021, with the knish, often relegated to a side dish, taking center stage.
Knishes were always something the couple’s parents had picked up alongside sandwiches at the deli, but when Graeme started making his version they saw the knish’s potential as a main course. “I love sandwiches, but they’re something you can get wherever and sometimes I don’t need all of that bread. But with a knish it’s just the right amount of bread to filling ratio,” Caitlin said.
The menu is based on their families’ recipes, with a hefty dose of nostalgia baked in. Fillings often hew close to their Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jewish roots, but the menu is also inspired by Sephardic and Israeli dishes, as well as old cookbooks the couple has been digging around in.
Standard knishes include Everything Bagel, Tzimmes, White Fish and their take on a Reuben Sandwich, as well as a sweet variety they dubbed the Cinna-Knish. Traditional sides like noodle and potato kugels, sauerkraut and pickles round out their deli case.
The Knishery opened on Mother’s Day and could not keep knishes on the counter. They sold out and needed a few days off to regroup. The only help the couple had was from Graeme’s retired pediatrician father, so they also looked for more cooks to join their team to keep up with knish production before expanding the menu.
Another staple of the Knishery, which is a takeout only space, are their Friday Night Dinners. Diners can order a meal of chicken, brisket or a vegetarian option, along with sides for Friday night pickup, so that after a long week they can have a home cooked Shabbat meal even if they are too tired to cook it themselves. The Knishery is closed on Saturdays, so the couple wanted to give their customers a meal to tide them over until the Sunday morning knish.
You might be thinking, is there a big Jewish population in Maine? Turns out there are plenty of Jews in Portland and they are all flocking to BenReuben’s. The Millers missed their religious community and are thrilled to find their shop has become a hub. They also get a lot of former New Yorkers and New Jerseyans as well as visitors who had roommates that introduced them to traditional Jewish dishes like the knish.
“I thought Google was going to be our best friend,” Graeme says. “I didn’t honestly anticipate the widespread knowledge of the knish or the nostalgia that it draws for people.” They truly expected 90% of customers would have to ask what a knish was.
That, however, has not been the case. Portland has become a serious food destination and BenReuben’s has filled a void. The two are adamant about making diners feel like they’re “home” at BenReuben’s and work hard to make sure they feel the comfort that’s been missing from the past year. “I’ve watched Graeme cook for 15 years, and he always does it with a lot of love and care,” Caitlin said. It’s also pretty easy to feel like family when you walk into a family-run business with grandparents and grandchildren visiting and lending a hand.
The only caveat: Like any growing family they ask for patience. As they work to build a sustainable and responsible business, and of course keep knishes on the shelves, BenReuben’s knishery asks guests to “Please excuse our growing pains,” but the business is taking off and those growing pains won’t last much longer.
If you’re in LA you can get some homestyle matzoh ball soup from 2 Jewish Girls From NYC but if you’re nowhere near Maine or LA you can try your hand at some Jewish staples in Jake Cohen’s cookbook “Jew-ish.”
NEXT ON THE DISH